Friday, October 17, 2014

The case of the $6.7million phantom cocoa improvement project, part V

There are lots of things that JMD does well, and maybe the reason it has had such success in Aceh is because it is so small, and has such a clearly defined focus: sustainable livelihoods for people in nearly-inaccessible places.  And by inaccessible I mean too far away from the capital for large NGOs to make it worth their while, too far into territory where ex-combatants are still pretty furious about the short shrift they’ve been given by the government, and too remote for government departments to visit very often.  As soon as we had addressed emergency housing and health issues in Aceh Jaya, the epicenter of the 2004 tsunami, JMD went inland, to those areas that had been ravaged not only by the tsunami but by the conflict as well.  So the agency became quite familiar with what needed doing in the northeastern part of the province, and we let the large international agencies continue to work around the fringes of the capital and, to some extent, in the central highlands, where JMD acted as implementing partner for an Arabica coffee improvement project. 

But JMD’s forte was its intimate knowledge of districts included in AAA/Keumang’s cocoa farmer improvement proposal: Aceh Timur, Pidie, Pidie Jaya, Bener Maria, Aceh Utara.
That was one of the reasons we though we could be helpful: staff knew the local leaders, and were familiar with the current projects and local NGOs implementing them.  It would be relatively easy for us (if we secured a small amount of funding) to take AAA’s final report and conduct a program/activity monitoring evaluation. Obviously, Keumang, having left the province, and AAA, no longer working in Indonesia, could not provide this.
When I wrote (twice) to AAA, however, and called (twice) their corporate offices, I was met with silence.  Not “no thanks.”  Not “It’s really not necessary, but how kind of you.”  Nothing.  Zip.  It was as if, with that offer, the agency had decided I was too much trouble to even communicate with. Or did they just hope we would go away and not bother to evaluate what was appearing to be more and more of a mere phantom program?

So we decoded to find out what type of narrative document was on file with World Bank at the PMU (Project Management Unit).

Now, the PMU of any project strikes fear in the hearts of most implementing agencies.  It’s kind of like the IRS: they exist in some shadowy but very real way, they demand lots of paperwork, and stern-looking, overdressed people make visits when things are really going south, but you never really know to whom they contractually owe their allegiance. Whose side are they on?

In the case of the EDFF funds, the PMU were World Bank employees (as always) but they seemed to have a much larger role in program implementation than in other countries—possibly because the “capacity,” as some like to say, of the recipient agency and its subcontractors was not up to par with WB regulations.  So even large agencies like AAA and IOM and World Wildlife Fund had PMU members trotting round after them because let’s face it, no one had ever been to post-tsunami, post-conflict Aceh before, or had worked with suddenly-flung-together local NGOs or, for that matter, been given so much money in such a short span of time. And neither had any World Bank Branch.  As one World Bank manager told me last year, “No one in that office had ever dealt with that much money.  There were a lot of, well, competence problems.  But the weird thing is, most of those people who were with the PMU, and all of World Bank in Indonesia, were promoted to positions in other countries, just because the amount of money they were given to manage was so huge.  It didn’t have anything to do with how good they were at their job—it was just that they got to say, ‘Look, I handled a $50 million portfolio’ and up the ladder they went.”

Comforting, huh?

But I wanted to make sure that there really weren’t any more documents, or evaluations, or monitoring visits conducted for the AAA program on file at World Bank or whatever passed for the post-EDFF entity in Aceh.

So I asked our Aceh staff to see if they could contact someone at World Bank in Jakarta to find out where they had what I assumed was an enormous database of projects. 
What we discovered was that a) no one at the PMU in Jakarta would talk to us, and b) a staff member’s associate, who had been on the PMU during the height of the EDFF funds dispersal, told him (before he stopped talking altogether) that there was no database, there were no records, and that the PMU was basically a bunch of badly-trained wannabe bureaucrats who had all left the province, and that we’d never get anything out of World Bank, programmatic document-wise, so we should just stop looking.

We will take a nice jaw-dropping pause here, and a moment of silence to reflect upon $7billion worth of international assistance and no centralized database of programs, activities, or evaluations.  Financials, yes.  There were enough fiscal outlay justifications and balanced budgets to sink a container ship.  But not one document stating that yes we saw the health clinic building, or the 5 fruit transport trucks, or the vastly improved lifestyle of the new shrimp farmers.  I’m not saying that the implementing NGOs themselves did not have in their own offices --and subsequently online--volumes and volumes and exhaustive exit study after exit study of their projects and their fabulous effects on the province and their (get me the vapors) “lessons learned.” But the projects had no independent evaluation component, and the fiduciary (BRR/WB) did not require one, or, after a while, any project/activity narrative.

There’s certainly more to this onion than the outer layer I’ve peeled off here, so next time I will tell you about the RAN database and its spawn of other brainstorms from the (very well-funded) Good Idea Fairy, and why they all went belly-up, leaving me and JMD wondering how we could ever hope to find out if it was true that AAA/Keumang had mishandled a good portion of their allocated $6.7 million, or if indeed anyone cared.

(And by the way, if anyone reading this has some information that can demonstrate to me why I am dead wrong about this, please get in touch with me because I would dearly love to believe that all these funds were appropriately spent and  these projects that we cannot find really do exist and are doing well.  Nothing would please me more.  I'm not in this for the yellow journalism, believe me.)

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